Alex Brummer
Alex Brummer

The myopia that keeps our communities at a distance

When we lived in Washington some years ago, my children went to nursery school at one of the great conservative cathedral synagogues, Tifereth Israel. At Shabbat services, I was struck by the ecumenical structure of the building and the community.

The main shul had a large Masorti-style service involving men and women. Downstairs in a smaller sanctuary there was a traditional minyan; in a separate room, a service for and conducted by women. There were also parallel children’s services. At the end of the morning, if the timing worked, all three groups would come together for kiddush.

The constructive approach to letting Jews be Jews and tolerant of each other’s brands of Judaism is in sharp contrast to the rigidities often found in British Jewry. There are notable exceptions, such as Limmud, where all brands of Judaism come together and, to his great credit, Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis is a great draw. At the Board of Deputies, traditional and other branches of Judaism gather regularly in a secular role.

But when it comes to religious practice within the United Synagogue, as we learnt during the recent dispute over participation in partnership minyanim, tolerance can be severely tested.

The good sense of different brands of Judaism working closely together for survival and strength is particularly acute in the provinces.

My home town of Brighton is hugely rich with Jewish heritage which dates back 250 years.

It has four operating synagogues (five if you count the garlanded treasure of Middle Street now used only for ceremonials), plus an active Chabad operation.

The community is rich in real estate but struggles with attracting respectable numbers to services. The buildings have great architectural qualities but are far too large to be practical.

This is not necessarily because Brighton Jewry has shrunk. Most estimates suggest there are at least 5,000 Jewish souls in the city, not counting the hipsters and the strong LGBT presence.

My understanding is that in the past 12 months there have been all manner of ideas for revitalising the community and bringing its institutions closer. The Brighton & Hove Reform community flirted with the idea of Masorti.

It also considered cohabitation on the same site as the orthodox community in West Hove.

The two Orthodox communities, the older established Brighton & Hove Hebrew Congregation (B&H) and Hove Hebrew Congregation HHC), have held merger talks for decades but long-standing differences have kept them apart.

As a result three of the communities, the Reform, B&H and HHC, are embarking on their own major real estate projects. Enough income will be generated by these developments to sustain each of the communities for many years.

But what the new building bonanza will not necessarily do is put bums on seats or create the vibrancy and inclusiveness capable of sustaining vibrant Jewish life in Brighton and Hove for the next 250 years.

How brilliant it would be if the leadership were capable of bringing the same enthusiasm to creating a stirring religious life in the city – a single campus with Jews of all stripes working together.

Unfortunately, myopia means it is unlikely to happen in Brighton or the other regional communities where such a model would
work best.

About the Author
Alex Brummer is the Daily Mail's City Editor
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